Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Russian and Chinese Support for Tehran

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Russian and Chinese Support for Tehran

Article excerpt

Recent years have witnessed the rise of irregular but frequently intensive opposition to U.S. global preeminence by Russia and China. In their own ways, and in pursuit of their own interests, each of these authoritarian governments has established an informal alliance with the Islamic Republic of Iran. For its part, the Khamenei regime in Tehran continues to view the United States as the "Great Satan" and works against American interests by engaging in international terrorism,1 aidingin attacks onU.S. and coalition personnel in Iraq2 and Afghanistan,3 working to derail any resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute,4 and most of all by seeking to acquire nuclear weapons.

There is a long history of conflict between Russia and Iran, so why is Moscow now warmly regarded by the Islamist regime, and why does Moscow, in turn, court Tehran? Furthermore, what explains Iran's new alliance with China? Has a new axis, opposed to the United States and Europe, formed, and if so, what are its roots and ramifications?

NEW GEOSTRATEGIC AXIS?

Russian commentator Andrei Volnov has called the de facto Moscow-Beijing-Tehran alignment "a new geostrategic axis."5 While such a characterization is more metaphor than reality, a trilateral combination, based on the common goals of promoting economic self-interest and reducingU.S. influence, certainly hasbeenbuilt on the foundations of fairly recent but significant bilateral ties between the two countries and Tehran. Thus, Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, notes that Moscow's ties with the Iranian regime "reflect a geopolitical agenda which is at least twenty years old."6 Russia is engaged in what might be called "strategic opportunism" as it constantly fishes in troubled waters with the goal of identifying vulnerabilities that its policy makers can exploit.7 Similarly, one can trace Beijing's increasing links with Tehran to the first years of the Iran-Iraq war in the early 1 980s.8 For its part, Iran has followed a consistent anti-America and anti-Israel path since its 1979 revolution.

Proponents of an informal alliance from the Russian Federation, China, and Iran present it as a reaction to the unilateralism of the United States and alleged U.S. aspirations for global hegemony. They consider the United States a significant rival and a threat to their long-term security. Consequently, Russia's goal, according to Cohen, is to engage in a "balancing strategy" that will knock the United States down a notch and thus revise the international status quo. While Cohen makes this point for Moscow's policy, it is an equally apt characterization of Beijing's approach as well.9

THE VIEW FROM BEIJING

The leaders of China and Iran feel that they are the proud heirs to two great and ancient civilizations that have been humiliated and made victims of Western imperial aggression. They believe that Washington's "hegemonism" represents the unjust continuation of long-standing Western efforts to keep them weak and subordinate.10 Hence, SinoIranian relations are bound by what Asia and Middle East analyst John Calabrese calls a "kinship of nationalisms."11

Perhaps more importantly, an understanding of economic issues further explains China's lukewarm support for the United States in its disputes with Iran. China, which has one of the world's fastest growing economies and which has designs on becoming an economic superpower, is today the world's second largest consumer of oil. Nearly 60 percent of its oil is imported from the Middle East. Iran, which possesses about 10 percent of the world's proven petroleum reserves, replaced Saudi Arabia as the leading supplier of oil to China in May 2009. Indeed, since reaching an agreement in October 2004, Beijing and Tehran have penned energy deals that purportedly are worth more than US$120 billion.12

Furthermore, Iran's oil producing facilities and equipment are in serious need of modernization. …

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